Montreal's Cast of Characters

Is Montreal Canada's happiest city? I have wandered a lot of streets in a lot of different cities in my life and I have never encountered so many happy surprises. Indeed the city does have a "joie de vivre" that doesn't exist in other cities, or perhaps it is just the Holiday (Happy) Season. 

After wandering the streets of the city for the past 10 days Montreal has become my happy place.  I thought Portland and Austin were happy places, but Montreal wins hands down with its crazy cast of characters and shops.  

I am not just speaking of the people, who indeed seem to be happy even in winter when it is snowing but also the many man-made characters I encountered as I wander Montreal's Rues and Avenues.  

I hope these photos will convey to you how Montreal's sense of fun and surprise combine to create a happy sense of place.

I found this character at the Christmas Market at the Convention Centre. I believe he/she might be a costume from the Nutcracker ballet as this was Les Grands Ballets' Nutcracker Market with benefits going to the Nutcracker Fund for Children.    

I found this character at the Christmas Market at the Convention Centre. I believe he/she might be a costume from the Nutcracker ballet as this was Les Grands Ballets' Nutcracker Market with benefits going to the Nutcracker Fund for Children.   

These fun characters sit on top of the entrance from St. Catherine's Street to Montreal's Underground City. 

These fun characters sit on top of the entrance from St. Catherine's Street to Montreal's Underground City. 

Found a wall of these portraits in the lobby of the Concordia University building while shopping at their pop-up Christmas Market.    They captured my off-the-wall imagination.

Found a wall of these portraits in the lobby of the Concordia University building while shopping at their pop-up Christmas Market.  They captured my off-the-wall imagination.

This fun character is from the world's largest Barbie Doll collection exhibition located in Montreal's Underground City.  

This fun character is from the world's largest Barbie Doll collection exhibition located in Montreal's Underground City.  

This guy was keen to ham it up when I asked if I could take a photo.   

This guy was keen to ham it up when I asked if I could take a photo.  

I am not sure if this mythical character is throwing a football or a baseball or perhaps just getting ready to work at Jeans Jeans Jeans.  

I am not sure if this mythical character is throwing a football or a baseball or perhaps just getting ready to work at Jeans Jeans Jeans. 

These hipster heads brought a quick smile to my face. Montrealers love their winter hats and scarfs. 

These hipster heads brought a quick smile to my face. Montrealers love their winter hats and scarfs. 

I was gobsmacked by the amazing murals tucked away in alleys and the back of buildings everywhere in Montreal.  I love the DIY outdoor art gallery they create.

I was gobsmacked by the amazing murals tucked away in alleys and the back of buildings everywhere in Montreal.  I love the DIY outdoor art gallery they create.

Loved this old world sculpture and reflecting pond that looked like something from Paris or Rome in the World Trade Centre building in Montreal's International District. 

Loved this old world sculpture and reflecting pond that looked like something from Paris or Rome in the World Trade Centre building in Montreal's International District. 

Another of the fun characters at the Nutcracker Market - this time real life. 

Another of the fun characters at the Nutcracker Market - this time real life. 

I spent a lot of time looking up at the old buildings checking to see if there were any strange characters looking down at me like this guy. FYI: In the entrance of the St. James Church there is a note saying technically a gargoyle should be a water sprout; this was news to me. 

I spent a lot of time looking up at the old buildings checking to see if there were any strange characters looking down at me like this guy. FYI: In the entrance of the St. James Church there is a note saying technically a gargoyle should be a water sprout; this was news to me. 

For 20 years Montreal's World Trade Centre has been celebrating Christmas with eight life-size Santa characters from around the world, including this Black Peter an evil-looking companion of Santa in the Netherlands in their lobby. 

For 20 years Montreal's World Trade Centre has been celebrating Christmas with eight life-size Santa characters from around the world, including this Black Peter an evil-looking companion of Santa in the Netherlands in their lobby. 

Found this guy on the side of an ordinary older building that seemed to have no historical significance at the corner of St. Hubert and Duluth Ave.  It is a good example how almost every block has something strange or surprising that made for great flaneuring.

Found this guy on the side of an ordinary older building that seemed to have no historical significance at the corner of St. Hubert and Duluth Ave.  It is a good example how almost every block has something strange or surprising that made for great flaneuring.

We were just wandering to a thrift store on Rue St. Hubert when I noticed a huge banner with for what looked like a contemporary exhibition titled "Workwear."  It wasn't clear if the show was inside but we decided to explore and sure enough Little Italy community centre was hosting a contemporary exhibition from Italy about fashion and workwear.  It makes us most happy when we just stumble upon something interesting - the thrill of the surprise. 

We were just wandering to a thrift store on Rue St. Hubert when I noticed a huge banner with for what looked like a contemporary exhibition titled "Workwear."  It wasn't clear if the show was inside but we decided to explore and sure enough Little Italy community centre was hosting a contemporary exhibition from Italy about fashion and workwear.  It makes us most happy when we just stumble upon something interesting - the thrill of the surprise. 

Found this window while walking along St. Laurent Boulevard. Nothing makes me happier than great window displays.

Found this window while walking along St. Laurent Boulevard. Nothing makes me happier than great window displays.

Loved this great use of bike as a prop for some winter greenery and summer flowers on the sidewalk in front of a florist shop. 

Loved this great use of bike as a prop for some winter greenery and summer flowers on the sidewalk in front of a florist shop. 

Even in the suburbs we were able to find something to make me happy, including this modern sculpture outside the tired Plaza Cote-des-Neiges (shopping centre).

Even in the suburbs we were able to find something to make me happy, including this modern sculpture outside the tired Plaza Cote-des-Neiges (shopping centre).

Found this cast iron 1939 bank at the St. Michel Antique Market.  I was tempted to buy it, but resisted.  Spent a very enjoyable 2.5 hours exploring the market, definitely worth a visit if the "thrill of the hunt" makes you happy. 

Found this cast iron 1939 bank at the St. Michel Antique Market.  I was tempted to buy it, but resisted.  Spent a very enjoyable 2.5 hours exploring the market, definitely worth a visit if the "thrill of the hunt" makes you happy. 

Crew Collective & Cafe is located in the landmark 1920 Royal Bank headquarters building that was once the tallest building in Canada.  It made me happy the space is still available to the public and if you live in Montreal this could be your office.  Imagine going to work here everyday! We were there on a Saturday afternoon and the huge space was packed with people happily working away. 

Crew Collective & Cafe is located in the landmark 1920 Royal Bank headquarters building that was once the tallest building in Canada.  It made me happy the space is still available to the public and if you live in Montreal this could be your office.  Imagine going to work here everyday! We were there on a Saturday afternoon and the huge space was packed with people happily working away. 

Last Word

One the the key elements of a "happy city" in my mind is how friendly people are to strangers.  Montrealers couldn't have been more friendly to us.

From the store owner who offered to drive us to the St. Michel Market when we asked if we were going in the right direction (it was just 5 blocks away) to the couple who shared their bottle of wine with us at Les Jardins des Panos restaurant when they realized we didn't bring any wine (it is a bring your own wine only restaurant).  

Or how the young lady working at the LNF vintage store was more than willing to share her hot tips with us on where to get the best finds.  She even gave us her name, phone number and email if we wanted to contact her later. 

Don't believe people when they say Montrealers won't speak to you in English.  We never once encountered a local who when we said "Bonjour, do you speak English" wasn't willing to talk to us in our native tongue. We loved how many Montrealers said with a smile,  "You practice your French and I will practice my English!"  We loved that!

Next year Montreal is celebrating its 375th Anniversary, if you are looking for someplace interesting to visit, Montreal should be at the top of your list.   

For me, Montreal has definitely become one of my happy places.    

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FFQing in Montreal

Regular Everyday Tourist readers know FFQ stands for "fun, funky and quirky"and FFQing is the art of looking for FFQ things to see and do in a city, town or village.  We have been in Montreal for just a week now and already we have a good list of FFQ things for visitors.  

These images also serve a fun postcards of everyday Montreal and the text tells some interesting Montreal stories.  

You have to admit this is fun, funky and quirky.  Found this black and white carport artwork while wandering along Boulevard St. Laurent aka The Main (because it is Main Street and divides the city into east and west). The Main is full of fun murals in the alleys and on the side of buildings at street corners.  It makes this street a fun place to flaneur. You can find this garage at 4866 St. Laurent.

You have to admit this is fun, funky and quirky.  Found this black and white carport artwork while wandering along Boulevard St. Laurent aka The Main (because it is Main Street and divides the city into east and west). The Main is full of fun murals in the alleys and on the side of buildings at street corners.  It makes this street a fun place to flaneur. You can find this garage at 4866 St. Laurent.

Jean Toss: Yes that is a pair of jeans (look at the top of the photo near the pillar) being tossed by staff at Jeans Jeans Jeans from a rack on the other side of the store to the fitting area. It is better than the fish toss at Seattle's Pike Market. Go on Saturday afternoon and you won't be disappointed. See video below.

Jean Toss: Yes that is a pair of jeans (look at the top of the photo near the pillar) being tossed by staff at Jeans Jeans Jeans from a rack on the other side of the store to the fitting area. It is better than the fish toss at Seattle's Pike Market. Go on Saturday afternoon and you won't be disappointed. See video below.

Captured this surreal light show at south-west entrance of the Montreal Convention Centre. The sun shining through the building's coloured glass facade created a wonderful mosaic on the escalator, steps, walls and floor inside the building. It is like walking into a stain glass window.

This is a close-up of the Olympic Torch sculpture on the plaza in front of the offices of the Canadian Olympic headquarters.  The yellow and orange colours dance like a flame and the stainless steel reflects the street life to create a fun artwork that works well both day and night. IMHO

This is a close-up of the Olympic Torch sculpture on the plaza in front of the offices of the Canadian Olympic headquarters.  The yellow and orange colours dance like a flame and the stainless steel reflects the street life to create a fun artwork that works well both day and night. IMHO

Stumbled upon a fun Barbie Doll exhibition in Montreal's Underground City. There were hundreds of dolls with designer clothes in display cases on the walls, as well as several fun vignettes, like this   fashion   show which was animated with models on runway and flashing cameras in the audience. See video below. The noise you hear is the fountain in the middle of the exhibition space.

Stumbled upon a fun Barbie Doll exhibition in Montreal's Underground City. There were hundreds of dolls with designer clothes in display cases on the walls, as well as several fun vignettes, like this fashion show which was animated with models on runway and flashing cameras in the audience. See video below. The noise you hear is the fountain in the middle of the exhibition space.

If you are in Montreal, you have to go to a Cirque du Soleil show.  We caught the OVO show at the Bell Centre - it was a wonderful smash-up of ballet, gymnastics, circus, music and visual arts .  Fun entertainment for everyone!

If you are in Montreal, you have to go to a Cirque du Soleil show.  We caught the OVO show at the Bell Centre - it was a wonderful smash-up of ballet, gymnastics, circus, music and visual arts. Fun entertainment for everyone!

Walking home one night discovered this quirky roof top artwork? patio? 

Walking home one night discovered this quirky roof top artwork? patio? 

Ecole de technologie Superieure's (ETS) funky campus is located in Griffintown just west of the downtown core. One of the buildings has a very strange and subtle white on white design best seen from across the street. I took this b&w photo to try and capture it.  Planning to revisit and see if I can do a walkabout inside.   Click Here For More Info.

Ecole de technologie Superieure's (ETS) funky campus is located in Griffintown just west of the downtown core. One of the buildings has a very strange and subtle white on white design best seen from across the street. I took this b&w photo to try and capture it.  Planning to revisit and see if I can do a walkabout inside.  Click Here For More Info.

Chabanel Street was once home to Montreal's bustling garment district. Today there are still many wholesalers who have showrooms there and on Saturdays some of them are open to the public.  It is a fun place to wander as you never know what you will find.  We got to see some of the Fall 2017 lines before the buyers did and heard stories of the good old days.  We also discovered this ghostly fashion show of mannequins in one of the empty spaces. 

Chabanel Street was once home to Montreal's bustling garment district. Today there are still many wholesalers who have showrooms there and on Saturdays some of them are open to the public.  It is a fun place to wander as you never know what you will find.  We got to see some of the Fall 2017 lines before the buyers did and heard stories of the good old days.  We also discovered this ghostly fashion show of mannequins in one of the empty spaces. 

These urban igloos were a quirky surprise. Turns out everyone on this street of row houses has white plastic carports.  I am guessing it is winter adaptation due to the fact Montreal gets lots of snow. I sure hope they remove them after winter!

These urban igloos were a quirky surprise. Turns out everyone on this street of row houses has white plastic carports.  I am guessing it is winter adaptation due to the fact Montreal gets lots of snow. I sure hope they remove them after winter!

This is another of Montreal's amazing public spaces that uses light and colour to create wonderful pedestrian experiences.  This is at the Place des Art. 

This is another of Montreal's amazing public spaces that uses light and colour to create wonderful pedestrian experiences.  This is at the Place des Art. 

A remnant of the Berlin Wall, is on permanent display in the middle of the Ruelle des Fortifications in the lobby of the Montreal World Trade Center building. The lobby is located on the former site of Montreal's walled fortifications which were built in 1717 and demolished between 1804 and 1812.     The fragment, donated to the City of Montréal by the City of Berlin to commemorate Montréal’s 350th anniversary, is a testament to Berlin's return to the community of free cities after the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989.

A remnant of the Berlin Wall, is on permanent display in the middle of the Ruelle des Fortifications in the lobby of the Montreal World Trade Center building. The lobby is located on the former site of Montreal's walled fortifications which were built in 1717 and demolished between 1804 and 1812. 

The fragment, donated to the City of Montréal by the City of Berlin to commemorate Montréal’s 350th anniversary, is a testament to Berlin's return to the community of free cities after the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989.

This is not Montreal's "Red Light District." In several places we encountered red lights from buildings shining on the sidewalk creating a fun (and warm) pedestrian experience. I am interested in seeing how it works in the snow. 

This is not Montreal's "Red Light District." In several places we encountered red lights from buildings shining on the sidewalk creating a fun (and warm) pedestrian experience. I am interested in seeing how it works in the snow. 

This wall of blue lights changes colours as pedestrians walk by SAT (Societe des Art Technologiques) building.  It serves as funky window covering to give some privacy to those working inside the school while also enhancing the pedestrian experience.  How cool is that?

Found these "pom pom" ladies creating a playful window display along Boulevard St. Laurent. 

Found these "pom pom" ladies creating a playful window display along Boulevard St. Laurent. 

This is the hallway to the elevators at Place Ville Marie to their Observation Deck on the 44/45/46 floors.  It is literally like walking into a geometric painting. FFQ for sure!

This is the hallway to the elevators at Place Ville Marie to their Observation Deck on the 44/45/46 floors.  It is literally like walking into a geometric painting. FFQ for sure!

This was lucky find! It was in a restaurant under construction in Little Burgundy.  I was stopped in my tracks by two guys carrying in a huge mirror from the street. I couldn't resist looking inside and this is what I found.  Wasn't that a party?

This was lucky find! It was in a restaurant under construction in Little Burgundy.  I was stopped in my tracks by two guys carrying in a huge mirror from the street. I couldn't resist looking inside and this is what I found.  Wasn't that a party?

I am astounded at the number of contemporary art galleries in Montreal. And they are everywhere, not just in the City Centre - Old Montreal, Little Burgundy, St Laurent, Rue St. Hubert, Plateau and Miles End. 

I am astounded at the number of contemporary art galleries in Montreal. And they are everywhere, not just in the City Centre - Old Montreal, Little Burgundy, St Laurent, Rue St. Hubert, Plateau and Miles End. 

Last Word

And this was after only five days? Montreal is very fun, very funky and very quirky! My kind of town!

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All downtowns must reinvent themselves!

While it is shocking Calgary’s downtown skyscraper “vacancy rate” skyrocketed to 20% at the end of March, (and that it could soon surpass the vacancy record of 22% set in 1983, twice what it was a year ago), we should keep some perspective.

These numbers are not unheard of in major corporate headquarter cities. Back in the ‘70s, New York City was in decline. By the mid ‘70s, New York City came close to bankruptcy and their office vacancy rate hit 20%. In 1993, Toronto’s downtown office vacancy rate hit 20.4% and Vancouver’s rose to 17.4% in 2004. And these may not even be records as data only goes back only to 1990 for those cities.

Today, New York City, Toronto and Vancouver’s downtowns are booming a testament to the fact that all downtowns go through periods of growth, decline and rebirth.

Montreal's St. Catherine Street has once again become a vibrant street with shops and street festival; this was not the case in the '70s when I first visited. 

Heyday and Decline

It might surprise some people to learn that in the early 20th century, Buffalo was one of the world’s leading cities. 

Home to America's first electric streetlights, it also had one of the world's first skyscrapers (Guaranty Building, 1894) and the world's largest office building (Ellicott Square, 1896). It hosted the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition and its beautiful park system was designed by none other than Fredrick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York City’s Central Park.

At the beginning of the 20st century Winnipeg was the fastest growing city on the continent. In 1912, a Chicago Tribune writer called Winnipeg “Chicago of the North” and described it as Canada’s most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse centre, with most of its population under the age of forty. It was described as Canada’s liveliest city, full of bustle and optimism. In 1911, Winnipeg was Canada’s third largest city; today it is eighth. 

The downtowns of both these cities fell into decline in the middle of the 20th century and while they have not returned to the hustle and bustle of their heydays, both are enjoying a modest renaissance.

Buffalo's waterfront was once thriving industrial and shipping centre, today it is being transformed into a wonderful public spaces for locals and tourists. 

Buffalo's Canalside development development is animated year round. (photo credit: Joe Cascio)

The Forks (where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet in Winnipeg) has been transformed into a mixed-use public space with two museums, baseball field, outdoor performance space, winter skating, market and hotel.  

Decline and Rebirth

In the ‘60s, the case could still be made that Montreal was Canada’s business capital. Its downtown was a major office headquarters for Quebec’s natural resource industry as well as a thriving financial industry, including the head offices of the Bank of Montreal, Royal Bank of Canada and insurance giant, Sun Life.

In 1962, when the Place Ville Marie office designed by iconic architects I.M. Pei and Henry N. Cobb opened, it symbolized Montreal’s arrival as world-class city.  This was further reinforced with the hosting of Expo 67, the arrival of Montreal Expos baseball team in 1969, and the 1976 Olympics.

However, the ‘70s brought the threat of separation, which resulted in many corporate headquarters and their executives moving to Toronto. By 1971, Toronto’s population surpassed Montreal’s. The 1976 Montreal Olympics, the most expensive in history, plunged the City into a legacy of debt and decline for decades.

Today, Montreal downtown has reinvented itself as an international tourist destination and a major player in the gaming and music industries.

Old Montreal is one of Canada's best urban tourist attractions. 

Then there was New York City.  In 1975, it was on the brink of bankruptcy.

The gradual economic and social decay set in during the‘60s. The city's subway system was regarded as unsafe due to crime and frequent mechanical breakdowns. Central Park was the site of numerous muggings and rapes; homeless persons and drug dealers occupied boarded-up and abandoned buildings. Times Square became an ugly, seedy place dominated by crime, drugs and prostitution. 

Today, New York City is back as one of the world’s most successful cities, economically and culturally…and Times Square is again one of the world’s most popular urban tourist attractions.

In the '60s and '70s the area around Times Square was a "no go" zone for tourists and locals. (photo credit: Ilana Galed)

Today Times Square is bustling with people of all ages and backgrounds.  It has become a wonderful public space as a result of street closures. 

Calgary’s Future

Perhaps Calgary has already begun to reinvent itself.

The CBRE’s First Quarter 2016 Report states, “Not all commercial real estate in the city has been affected, though. Suburban office space held steady fro,m the last quarter, and the industrial real estate market is still robust because it’s not tied to oil and gas.” 

Indeed, Calgary has become one of North America’s largest Inland Port cities, including two state-of-the art intermodal rail operations.  Calgary is now the distribution headquarters for Western Canada a position once held by Winnipeg. Today, Calgary’s industrial sectors employ more people than the energy sector.  However, this new economic engine won’t help vacant downtown office spaces as it is not downtown- oriented.

Link: Calgary Region: An Inland Port

Calgary Economic Development is working with the real estate community to implement a Head Office/Downtown Office Plan with three action items.

One idea is the repurposing of smaller older office spaces as incubators and innovation hubs to attract millennials and/or entrepreneurs and the creation of incubation and co-sharing space.  A good example of this is in West Hillhurst, where Arlene Dickenson (a successful Calgary entrepreneur, venture capitalist and former start of the TV show Dragon’s Den) has converted an old office building at the corner of Memorial Drive and Kensington Road (once home to an engineering firm) into District Ventures, home to several start-up packaged goods companies.

New and old office buildings in downtown Calgary with multiple floors of vacant office space will be difficult to convert to other uses. 

Another “repurposing” idea would be to convert some older office buildings into residential uses. In the US, programs like “Vacant places into Vibrant spaces,” have been successful but mostly for office to residential conversions of older buildings with smaller floor plates.  They don’t work for offices buildings with floor plates over 7,500 square feet (which is the case for most of Calgary’s empty high rise office space), as it is expensive and difficult to meet residential building codes which are very different from commercial ones, making it difficult to compete with new residential construction.

In an ideal world, Calgary could become a “Global Talent Hub” where skilled workers who have been displaced from the energy and related industries continue to live in Calgary but become a remote workforce for energy projects around the world. Temporary and permanent satellite offices could be established in Calgary with teams of engineers, geologists, accountants, bankers etc. working on projects around the world.

The obvious strategy would be to woo international companies in the finance, insurance, transportation, agriculture, digital media and renewable resources industries to set up a Canadian or North American office in Calgary, maybe even relocate their headquarters here.   With cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Boston facing mega affordable housing crisis for millennial workers, Calgary could become a very attractive place for a satellite office for companies in those cities.

One “off the wall idea” postulated by George Brookman, C.E.O of West Canadian Industries, would be to promote Calgary as an International Centre for Energy Dispute Resolution, similar to the Netherland’s TAMARA (Transportation And Maritime Arbitration Rotterdam-Amsterdam) that offers an extrajudicial platform for conducting professional arbitration for settling disputes. However, this would take years and one wonders could Calgary compete with London and New York who are already leaders in International Arbitration business?  

Last Word

Calgary has reinvented itself before. It evolved from a ranching/agriculture-based economy to an oil and gas one in the middle of the 20th century, which was when our downtown came of age. The downtown core which is an office ghetto today would benefit immensely if incentives could be made to convert a dozen or so office buildings into condos, apartments or hotels to create a better “live, work, play” balance.

Note: An edited version of this blog was published by CBC Crossroads titled “Revitalizing Calgary’s core: Some possibilities for rebirth” on June 17, 2016.

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